The first thing I did when I got to Heathrow today was buy a Guardian. Indeed, my article was there, opening the Review section, and the cover is a rather lovely blue with a silhouette of T. S. Eliot. Only a few people in my publishing world today, very much focussed on social sciences and now technology, know that my first love is literature, and letters.
The Guardian article is a memoir of the two years I worked for Valerie Eliot, widow of T. S. Eliot and his literary executor, was a refreshing reminder of other kinds of publishing, and of the way some people’s personal histories are woven into our understanding of the social history of, in this case, the twentieth century. Here’s the article: Dear Mrs Eliot… It’s a long article, but a good deal was cut.
I did a good deal of cutting, to start with, as the original draft was much, much longer, with more material about my own experience as well as information I had gathered from others who knew the Eliots. I was sorry to see the anecdotes go but knew it had to happen. I let a trusted copy editor do the most severe surgery, to get it to a reasonable length. Other material was cut during editing at the Guardian.
My time with Valerie Eliot was quite complicated, given our difference in age, politics, and ways of life. She made a great effort to accept what were, from her point of view, striking peculiarities. Riding a bike to work, for example (she let me park it in the hall, but always seemed nervous about walking past it), or being interested in environmental issues. My son Tom, now 19, doesn’t like chocolate, and attributes this to being forced to eat a piece of chocolate upon his introduction to Mrs Eliot. He was a year old and had never had any kind of sweet. Mrs Eliot was unsure of what to do with a baby, so she got a box of chocolates out of a drawer and insisted that he would like one. I went along with this, I’m afraid, and pushed it into his mouth, no doubt worrying that he would spit it out and make a mess. Tom doesn’t remember this, but the story has nonetheless become part of his own history.